The question of scale has been of ongoing interest in the sustainable development discourse, particularly with regard to the size, geographical extent, and complexity of human systems. However, this consideration has not sufficiently informed the practical implementation of sustainable technologies and there remain echoes of historical debates over “small is beautiful” versus “bigger is better” that dominated environmentalism during the 1970s. The complex adaptive nature of social and ecological systems suggests that trying artificially to choose a scale for systems is the wrong approach. A properly managed system should self-organize to a scale that optimizes economic prosperity while respecting ecological limits. For this outcome to occur, however, we argue along the lines of Herman Daly for the effective use of macroeconomic tools. Though the specific form of these tools remains undefined, we draw on complex systems theory to suggest four possible properties based on the concepts of resilience and transformability. These properties are then applied to the food system to demonstrate the self-organization of scale.
Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy